Ask the Chef: James Syhabout

on Box and Bells


Mitch Tobias

Nothing gets the Bay Area food scene salivating like a closed restaurant and an available Michelin-starred chef. After all, that’s the equation that came into play a few months ago when College Avenue’s Somerset restaurant closed, and Commis (3859 Piedmont Ave., 510-653-3902) chef-owner James Syhabout of Oakland swooped in and signed a deal to take over the space.

Oh, the potential!

Called Box and Bells, the 2,200-square-foot space with a full bar and an outdoor patio in the back at 5912 College Ave. will have a homey, meat-centric bent (think Southern country ham) and feature lots of things in jars (pickles, anyone?). A hoped-for January opening was nixed, but instead, Syhabout and chef of the new venture, Benjamin Coe, were introducing the Box and Bells cuisine to the public in a series of pop-ops at Syhabout’s other acclaimed Oakland restaurant, Hawker Fare (2300 Webster St., 510-832-8896) in February. We checked in with Syhabout (pronounced see-HAH-boot) to see how things were going.

Q: What’s the progress on Box  and Bells?

A: The space is still bare bones. We finally got the primary structure in place, but it’s still not finished. We were hoping for a January opening but we knew that wasn’t going to happen. Then we were going to do a series of pop-ups at Hawker Fare in January to introduce the cuisine to the public, but we pushed that back to February.

Q: Why Box and Bells?

A: Box and Bells were just two words I liked, and they had a good ring to it. It’s like, ‘Make some noise!’ Put a bell in a box and shake it around and it makes a lot of noise.’

Q: How did you join forces with Alan Carlson of Italian Colors restaurant in Montclair as a partner?

A: We met through a mutual friend who’s in the industry on the equipment side. We had dinner and we really hit it off. I’m the creative director, but Alan’s a chef, too, and he’ll have some input. But he’s given me carte blanche.

Q: Is there pressure on you to succeed with this new restaurant, since Commis has a Michelin star?

A: There’s always pressure, especially with Commis. I’m putting more pressure on myself and my guys. But they’ve all worked with me; they know my philosophy. So it’s pressure, but it’s pressure in a good sense.

Q: How much boils down to the art of writing a good menu? Looking at Commis’ menu, I think if I told my family we were having sea scallops perfumed with fresh bergamot, they’d give me a Michelin star.

A: There is a lot of art to it. Each establishment is different. It depends on what the chef wants to purvey to the guests. When you write a menu, there’s a story behind it. Commis is more avant-garde … Hawker Fare is everyday fun grub. The menu [at the new restaurant] will be Benjamin Coe’s. He was born in Missouri, so it’s going to be more meat-centric. There’s a big ham culture so there will be a list of country hams from different parts of the South. But pretty much, the whole thing is bar food. There is an artisan cocktail program and a beer garden. We want it to be a social gathering place, like a public house: loud, lively and bustling. Where a group of friends can come in, have a good time, eat and drink and not worry about the X, Y and Zs of a formal restaurant.  


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